Cattle Ranching For Beginners

        For both large and small Cattle Ranching projects once you have an operation established raising beef cattle for profit can be both enjoyable and satisfying. In the beginning you will need to know or learn a few management skills that beef cattle producers may need to be successful.

     All beef cattle farming and ranching operations will not have the exact same resources but all will include Investment Money, Available Labor, Feed Available, Amount of Land and Management. To build an operation that is successful and sustainable in cattle ranching you will need to manage all available resources to maximize any chance for positive results.

Where to Look for Helpful Information.
In today’s high tech environment the first place to research might be the Internet. Start by entering your questions in the search engines and go from there.

     Today as in the past there is a lot of information available on raising beef cattle through books and magazines. But unlike days gone by you can find a lot of these books and magazines available on the Internet and/or available for purchase at discount prices from places like Amazon.

     Local information is available in most areas through a County Agent or Cooperative Extension service. You can usually find copies of printed information available by visiting your local Cooperative Extension Office in person. I recommend a personal visit as opposed to telephone, it shows more genuine interest.

     To improve your working knowledge of cattle ranching as well as promoting the type or breed of cattle on your ranch you should join a local beef producer’s organization and visit with other local ranchers. You will find most beef cattle ranchers are more than happy to share their knowledge. You will want to visit as many of their operations as possible for ideas on handling, management, and their breeds and type of animals. And never forget one of the most important sources is your veterinarian. It will always be beneficial to discuss health concerns and management suggestions with your vet.

What Kind of Beef Cattle Enterprise Should I Choose?
     In most cases the primary sole source of income from a new cattle ranching operation will come from the calves produced each year. This makes it very important to choose accordingly and acquire cows of a type known for producing a calf every 12 months. You should always keep this in mind when you are selecting for new additions or culling. Always try to keep good productive cows that will produce a calf every year without assistance, maintain their body condition without becoming overly thin or fat, and raise a calf with an average weaning weight that meets your goals.

Breeds of Beef Cattle
Beef cattle are generally described as maternal breeds or terminal breeds. Maternal breeds are known for milk production and mothering ability while terminal breeds are known for growth and meat producing ability.

Some breeds are also known as dual purpose breeds because they combine muscling for meat production with excellent maternal characteristics. Crossbreeding can help you combine the best attributes of two or more breeds into one package. Choose traits that are important to you and then seek a breed or a crossbred that exhibits those traits.

Type of Cattle Ranching Operation
     Before you get started in the beef cattle business, you will need to ask yourself what type of operation you would like to run. Some of the typical options are cow/calf, backgrounding feeder  calves, or feedlot. The cow/calf producer keeps a herd of cows to produce calves. The backgrounder buys weaned calves and turns them out on pastures until they reach 800 to 900 pounds. The feedlot operator purchases weaned calves or backgrounded calves and feeds them to market weight.

If you choose to become a cow/calf operator, you will also need to decide whether you would like to run a registered purebred or a commercial operation. A registered purebred operation typically raises cattle of one breed. A registered purebred operation will usually have all registered cattle that can be sold through purebred beef cattle sales and command a premium over commercial price. A commercial operation may have unregistered purebred cattle or they may have crossbred cattle. Commercial producers can have the benefit of hybrid vigor which is simply the ability of crossbred offspring to increase in productivity over the average of the breeds that were part of the cross. This means that a crossbred calf could grow faster and thus weigh more at a certain age than either of its parents.

      Many purebred sales are held across the country throughout the year. Sales may offer only one breed or they may offer a large variety of breeds for sale. Also, you may want to become familiar with trends in the beef industry when choosing registered purebred breeding stock. Choose bulls that will compliment the outstanding traits in your cows and improve their weaknesses.

     Cows for a commercial operation can be bought at a purebred sale and then used in a crossbreeding program or you can contact individual producers to buy larger numbers of heifers that could be purebreds or crossbreds. Another option is to buy animals through a local auction barn. Be aware however, that you are more likely to buy problem cattle through an auction barn. Unless you know the producer and his cattle it is seldom a good idea to buy replacement cattle through the local auction because most often the animals are someone’s culls.

     Beef cattle producers who purchase calves to background or place in a feedlot often purchase calves directly from a cow/calf operator. They may also purchase calves through feeder calf sales. Most buyers will pay more for calves that have been weaned, dewormed and vaccinated because the likelihood of calves getting sick is greatly reduced.

Beef Cattle Management
Management of a beef cattle operation depends largely on the interests of the producer as well as the resources available such as land, feed, facilities, and others. Management systems will vary depending on the climate. Operations that have hard winters will want to provide access to shelter for the cows during extremely cold weather and during periods of cold rain.

Facilities for beef operations will vary from fencing to barns, sheds or shelters. Again, facility requirements will depend on whether your operation runs cattle only through the summer months  or all year. Any operation should have some type of handling system that allows a producer to easily catch and restrain an animal for routine health care procedures. The handling system should include a corral system with a chute that leads to a head-gate.

     A beef facility may also need feeding facilities. This could be as simple as a mineral feeder for a backgrounding operation. Or, it may include barns and grain and hay feeders for the cow/calf operation. In addition, a feedlot operation will need to account for adequate bunk or feeder space for the number of animals that are being fed.

     A general rule of thumb for feeder space is to provide 18 to 22 inches for calves up to 600 pounds, 22 to 26 inches per head for calves 600 pounds to market weight, 26 to 30 inches per head for mature cows, and 14 to 18 inches per head for calves. If you have feed available at all times, these sizes can be decreased.

Regardless of what type of operation you run, you will need to keep a certain amount of equipment on hand. Some of the smaller equipment that you would need might include syringes and needles along with medications for treating sick animals and halters for restraining those animals.

Large equipment needs will depend on your type of operation. If you plan to grow your own feeds, you will need a tractor and the various planting and harvesting equipment. For operations with pastures, you should have a brush hog or some type of mower to clip off the seed heads of pasture plants to keep them growing in a vegetative state. A pasture plant will stop growing once it has produced seeds for the year.

Feed Requirements
     Beef cattle will have varying requirements depending on their age and stage of production. Calves will need a higher level of nutrition to allow for their growth, while mature dry cows will need a relatively low level of nutrition. Pregnant cows in the last third of pregnancy require more nutrients than dry cows. Feed requirements also increase for cold weather and especially for cold rains.

     Calves can be creep fed before weaning by setting up an area accessible to only the calves. The creep feed may contain grain, hay or both. Creep rations can vary greatly depending on the price of grains. You may want to do some research before going on a creep feed basis because it is not always profitable.

     The protein requirement decreases as the calves mature. For example a creep ration for nursing calves could start at 18% protein. Near weaning time or around 6 to 8 months of age the level can be reduced to 14%. This level can be maintained until you stop feeding grain daily. This will depend on what type of operation you have and how much importance you put on maximum growth.

      Backgrounded calves often receive only pasture. This allows them to grow slowly until the fattening phase when they are in a feedlot. The purpose of backgrounding is to add weight to calves using a cheap feed source. Because these calves are older they are much less likely to become sick once they enter a feedlot. Typically these calves have also been through a rigid preventive health program.

     Mature cows should receive adequate nutrition so that they gain weight during the last third of pregnancy. The protein level for cows is not as important as the energy. The body condition of cows at calving has a large impact on their ability to rebreed. Therefore, cows that are thin going into the winter months may need higher quality hay or possibly grain to help them improve their body condition for calving in the spring.

     Bulls can be fed similar to cows. When they are young and growing or while they are breeding cows they will need higher quality feed. Bulls should be in good body condition at the start of breeding season to insure adequate sperm production for breeding the cows.

Breeding Season
     Breeding seasons will vary depending on when you want your calves born. Many producers will breed cows to calve in the spring so that they can take advantage of the flush growth of spring grass. Other producers may breed cows to calve in the fall for the same reason. Regardless of when the calves are born, the bull should be allowed to run with the cows for a specified period of time, typically 60 to 90 days. This allows you to feed all your cows as one group, wean calves at the same time and feed those calves in the same group. If you sell your calves at weaning time, you should also have a more uniform group of calves in terms of weight and age. When in doubt as to when the best time to have your calves born you can start by calving in sync with nature in your area. Check this by learning when deer fawns are usually born.

     When breeding cows you will need to consider how many bulls can cover the number of cows you plan to breed. A mature bull will be able to cover up to 30 cows on average. For yearling bulls, decrease the number of cows to 20 or about 1 cow for each month of his age. In preparing bulls for breeding season, they should be in good body condition, not overly fat or thin.

Many producers use artificial insemination or A.I. to breed their cows. This practice allows them to use very high quality bulls that they may not otherwise be able to afford. These cows can be bred through visual identification of cows that are in heat or cows can go through an estrus synchronization program so that all the cows are bred at the same time. This allows a producer to time the breeding as well as when he expects the cows to calve. Be sure to have a back up plan or a “clean up” bull that can breed any cows who don’t settle through the artificial breeding process.

     Regardless of whether the cows are bred naturally or through A.I., a producer can use performance data to help select bulls to mate to certain cows. This information tells a producer what to expect for birth weights, weaning weights and yearling weights. This information can also predict milk production in females as well as carcass characteristics in feedlot cattle.

Calving Season
     Producers have different methods for calving cows. In general, you will need to decide if you want to calve the cows outside on pasture or inside the barn. The time of year that you calve  will determine to some extent where you calve. Cows calved in the colder part of winter or during periods of cold rains should have those calves inside to decrease the chance of losing calves. Keep in mind, however, that inside calving can increase the incidence of calf scours.

     During warmer times of the year, cows can calve outside on pasture. Be sure to observe the cow and her calf to make sure the calf is receiving adequate amounts of colostrum, the first milk that is rich in antibodies that protect the calf against sickness.

Weaning Time
     Most calves are weaned at 6 to 8 months of age. You can increase the weaning weights of your calves by deworming them 1 to 2 months prior to weaning. In addition, calves will be less stressed at weaning if they have access to dry feed, either hay or grain prior to weaning.

Health Programs
The old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is very true in the beef cattle business. Time and money spent preventing diseases is much less costly than treating the disease once it occurs in the herd. Calves should be dewormed one to two months before weaning and then vaccinated for IBR, PI3, and BVD as a minimum. Vaccination programs will often include HS (haemophilus somnus), BRSV (bovine respirator syncytial virus), pasteurella haemolytica, Lepto, and clostridia. In some areas mature cattle should receive an annual booster vaccine. Check with your local vet.

Plan your cattle marketing in advance
     Two of the easiest places to sell your calves are through a local auction barn or through a local feeder calf sale. This is always a gamble because you never know what you will receive for your calves. Sometimes that gamble can work in your favor as well as against you. When taking calves to the market, look for those times of the year when demand is high and you are more likely to receive higher prices. For example, early fall and early spring are good times to sell your calves.

     Other options for selling calves are to develop your own direct market. This might be selling freezer beef, breeding stock, or feeder calves to a feedlot. Other options are to produce a value-added product such as beef stew or market your beef through your own restaurant. Producing a unique product can also develop niche markets. Be sure to check on any government requirements for selling processed products. Or, you may want to focus on organic beef or grass fed beef. Use your ingenuity to come up with your own special product, but be prepared to spend some time and effort on marketing that product.

Some Final Thoughts
Whether your new cattle ranching enterprise will raise purebred breeding stock or commercial cattle for market, you will need to sit down prior to getting started and make some decisions. Spend some time thinking about what you would like to do as well as developing a business and marketing plan. Developing the plans will help you to focus on the goals you wish to achieve as well as provide a valuable source of information to lenders if you plan to borrow money.